The technical committee of BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) has on 15th October 2020 suspended TRP (Television Rating Point) ratings for all English, Hindi and Regional news channels of India for 12 weeks or three months during which weekly ratings for individual news channels will not be published while the weekly ratings by language and state would continue. The period of suspension, as reports say, would be fully utilized by BARC to completely review and re-haul its sets of rules for calculating the TRP numbers, and thus would try to make the statistics of the biggest television rating agency of the world credible and trustworthy. Up to this point the rules were based on the viewing patterns of a sample of 40 thousand households or 180,000 viewers across the country through installation of people’s meter device in their TV sets, to determine the standards and patterns of nearly 200 million television viewing households or around 836 million viewers in India. President of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has welcomed the decision as a step in the right direction.
This decision comes in the wake of the TRP-fixing by a few news channels, the Republic TV most prominently. A complaint to this effect had been filed recently by BARC with Mumbai Police through Hansa Research Group. It was alleged in the complaint that the said channels are bribing families in whose television sets meters have been installed for collecting viewership data to tune in to the particular channels continuously. Accordingly, the Mumbai police commissioner held a press briefing in Mumbai to announces the start of investigations to probe the channels allegedly trying to manipulate TRP data to garner more advertisement revenues.
This development was also preceded by a few stormy months during which a few news channels had started media trials to convert the apparent suicide of a rising film star, Sushant Singh Rajput, into a murder conspiracy and accordingly, ‘investigative’ campaigns to howl for the blood the ‘accused’ along with slander campaigns to malign a number of cinema celebrities allegedly associated in the ‘murder’ angle and drug-abuse charges. The government of Maharashtra and Mumbai police were also vilified in the campaigns. Three premier investigative agencies were put into the scene to file charge-sheets and jail the ‘accused’, primarily named in the media trials, all for apparent political gains. At the moment, their investigations have almost petered out, none of them being able to justify the murder angle. In the month of October 2020 all the leading producers of the Hindi film industry, Bollywood, had filed a petition in Delhi High Court complaining against the media trials and slander campaigns by two prominent national news channels, the Republic and Times Now. In the meantime, to-watch-or-not-to-watch news channels has become an existential crisis for the common people of the country.
In fact, since the coming to power of the Hindu nationalist NDA government in India in 2014 and its aggressive push for a Hindi nation, the news channels and the Indian media had been increasingly getting polarized along ideological lines, with some pushing for agenda-oriented and brazenly communal campaigns while the others struggling with their neutral-journalism stands. Fake news and manipulations in the social media have also been the disturbing developments during the same period.
Under the liberal push of the Dr. Manmohan Singh Government in 1991 private international television broadcasting players were allowed to take part in the Indian broadcasting scenario which hitherto had been dominated by the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. So then, satellite cable entertainment channels had started coming in from the early nineties and news channels had started proliferating since the mid-nineties. Cut-throat competition thus began with the proliferating channels fighting for their respective chunks of viewership. Audience research had thus become an issue of paramount importance.
TAM or Television Audience Measurement, a private concern to measure TV viewership in India, started operations since the mid-nineties, and was soon joined by INTAM or Indian National Television Audience Measurement by ORG-MARG. The ride of the TRP competition and measurement had always been a roughshod journey with most of the channels contesting the statistical figures making their own claims and some of them launching bitter legal battles against the agencies. In view of this, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, started deliberations to build a more credible and complete rating agency in 2008, trying to involve all the stakeholders in the business. After various reports by various committees and recommendations by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) the concept of BARC was formalized in 2010 as a joint industry body founded by the stakeholders: the broadcasters, the advertisers and the advertising & media agencies, and it started its operations from 2013-14. In a landmark move in 2015, TAM and INTAM got merged with BARC. However, the recent developments and various charges/allegations in the preceding years have again proved that a complete and trustworthy rating agency is still a distant dream.
While audience research and rating for the competing broadcasting groups cannot be dome away with, the TRP analysis for the news channels can definitely be abolished altogether, leaving the news channels to concentrate on good and unbiased content to win the respective viewership. This would also liberate the sober news channels from unnecessary cut-throat wars or controversial statistics or rigging over the TRP. Further, news is very close to the physical reality, informing the viewers about the developments in all fields of activity, and any tampering with the news content, making it biased or fake or just unreliable would be an absolute disservice to the citizens. Therefore, we also join the many voices that are already in the ups, for a total stop of the TRP system for the news channels. Suspension is most welcome, but it has to be the fore-bearer of more drastic action.